Banned Critic: New York Film Critics Are "Celebrity-Worshipping Awards-Givers" (Guest Column)

Armond White, who was expelled from the critics' group last year after allegedly heckling Steve McQueen, a charge he denies, blasts the group for becoming part of "this scared, awards-crazed era"
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Armond White

This story first appeared in a special awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Editors note: At last year's New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, critic Armond White was reported to have heckled Steve McQueen, who was accepting a best director award for 12 Years a Slave, by calling out, "You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man." White denied the charge at the time, saying reports of the event were inaccurate. But the critics group expelled him, saying, "Disciplinary measures had to be taken to prevent any reoccurrence." As the NYFCC holds its awards dinner tonight, White, who is now the film critic for National Review and OUT Magazine, takes a look back at the controversy and what it says about the state of film criticism.

Critics rarely have history, or greatness, thrust upon them, but being the first film critic publicly ejected from the New York Film Critics Circle one year ago allows me to put that group’s history — and its sad future — in perspective.

There had been a grand purge of several Circle members 10 years before, but it happened internally. Mine occurred last year after Variety’s film editor blogged an erroneous and unsubstantiated allegation that I heckled Steve McQueen at the Circle's awards dinner. I had not. (Variety also misreported my private exchange with another attendee.) But the slander went viral, and the Circle’s chairman, Joshua Rothkopf, and vice-chairman, Stephen Whitty, chose to believe it. Neither of them ever contacted me about the veracity of the allegation. Instead, Rothkopf and Whitty acted vindictively: First, issuing an apology to Fox Searchlight Pictures (distributor of McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave) for an "offense" that never happened and then changing the Circle’s bylaws in order to banish me from the group despite my 27-year membership, which included three separate tenures as chairman that raised the Circle’s public profile.

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In the year since my good deeds were punished, it’s been possible to assess what the ouster means for any critic with a strong voice in this scared, awards-crazed era.

I take my cue from the perspicacity of Sally Field, who's known for her keen perception of how awards groups function. Two examples: Field's 1985 Oscar gush “You like me! You really like me!” exposed the Academy Awards' myth of meritocracy, revealing that awards organizations are really all about popularity (or, in my case, unpopularity). When Field appeared at the 2012 NYFCC awards dinner, she accepted her certificate with a revealing confession: “I don’t even read you guys!”

Circle members, dizzy at being in the presence of a real live movie star, audibly returned Field’s gush. That embarrassing, unprofessional fawning signaled the current decline: critics being disrespected and not taking their own jobs seriously. Awards shows have become a way of lessening 
the importance of criticism. No wonder Field and others don’t read critics. Groveling (and its flip side, intolerance) reduces the NYFCC to just one among dozens of celebrity-worshipping awards-givers. 

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During my 2010 chairmanship, I put the phrase "oldest and most prestigious awards group" into the Circle's boilerplate publicity materials. (Sigh.) I organized unprecedented and unmatched partnership exhibitions with the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Society of Lincoln Center to celebrate the Circle’s 75th anniversary. I also arranged to have the Circle’s historic papers archived at MoMA to preserve its legacy. It was my honor to do
 so, in tribute to members who served before me such as Pauline KaelAndrew SarrisJudith CristKathleen CarrollArcher WinstenBruce WilliamsonJohn Simon and others. Real critics, they also weathered temperamental differences — even fisticuffs — yet maintained collegial sophistication without embarrassing themselves through public gossip and
acts of intolerance. 

In this age of conformity, unanimity hides bias and truth-tellers get ostracized. Film criticism has lost its independence. Group-think not only removes honor from consensus opinion, it also promotes hostility to the practice of journalistic criticism. This was proved by the Circle's attempt to demonize my singular, intimidating position as a critic. 

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So I was gratified this fall when the American Book Awards and Before Columbus Foundation understood the real significance of my ouster as an act of censorship and awarded me its Anti-Censorship Award. It recognized the work I've done as a cultural commentator against the odds of mainstream ostracism and disrespect.

There is now an overwhelming tendency throughout media to make reviewers compliant and discourage any independent expression; this is done through methods as subtle as suppression and as overt as character defamation.

But it won’t work. I am emboldened by the support of many and still believe in speaking truth to power, an ethic I learned from Ida B. WellsGeorge SchuylerHarold Cruse and Kael. I thank God that the ABA understood the essence of my own struggle — even from as far away as the West Coast — and reached out to me. It makes up for all the small-minded slander and indifference (details will appear in my upcoming book, Critic Without a Culture). I am enormously encouraged.